NEW YORK (CNS) — After private meetings with prefects of Vatican congregations and presidents of pontifical councils in late October, six Catholic women philanthropists came away hopeful and encouraged, because they felt an openness to including more women in advisory and other roles in the Catholic Church.
Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, said she and five other women whose families have developed relationships with curial officials over three generations, held candid discussions at the Vatican about the participation of talented women in church ministries across the globe.
It was their third round of meetings since 2007 to advocate for women in the church.
“We love the church and think the church can be a more effective advocate of the Gospel if women are active participants,” Robinson said Nov. 7 at the Manhattan headquarters of the Jesuit weekly magazine, America.
Robinson said young Catholic women, especially in the West, know they can reach high levels of leadership in a secular sector or industry but face limited leadership opportunities if they discern a vocation of service to the church. As a result, they turn their talent and attention to where they can “excel, be promoted, be appreciated, lead and serve fully.” They drift away and the church becomes less relevant to them and, by extension, their children, she said.
“Without these highly talented, accomplished, faith-filled, generous women, the whole church is impoverished,” Robinson said.
Robinson said cardinals they met in the past were receptive to the women and their message of the benefits of mutual understanding, but there was “a change in atmosphere” in the recent meetings and an openness to pursue practical action. She said they discussed “what obstacles exist to prevent women from being included” and detailed possible solutions.
Their suggestions included expanding the number of women in professional roles in each dicastery, or major Vatican department; increasing the number of women advisers to pontifical congregations and councils; restoring women to diaconal ministry; and appointing women to the Vatican diplomatic corps and communications apostolate.
Some historians say there have been women deacons in the church’s history, but in a 2002 study, the International Theological Commission concluded women deacons in the early church performed a role that was different from that of the ordained male diaconate. The commission is an advisory body to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Another suggestion by Robinson and the others is to restore to the Lectionary biblical passages that refer to women’s leadership roles. A study released in 2008 showed that Mass readings in use since 1976 omitted or designated such readings as optional and retained those some say highlight more passive roles of women.
Robinson said the cardinals were receptive to the group’s recommendation to provide day care at the Vatican. They also were interested in the suggestion to focus the Pope Francis’ upcoming World Day of Peace message on the disproportionate effect of war and violence on women and children, she said.
“Perceptions matter,” Robinson said. “Having women at the Vatican would change the perception many have that the church is misogynist and noninclusive.”
She said women religious across the globe give witness by meeting the needs of a broken world. The church should avail itself of the expertise of women religious who have served in congregational leadership at the international level, Robinson said.
Robinson spoke at an event to celebrate the Oct. 28 issue of America, which marked the first time a Jesuit journal devoted an entire issue to women in the life of the church.
Jesuit Father Matt Malone, America’s editor-in-chief, said the issue was the result of the confluence of a “kairos” moment in which all are invited to imagine things anew, Pope Francis’ call for deeper reflection on the theology of women, and the editorial staff’s self-reflection and examination of conscience.
Kerry Weber, the magazine’s managing editor, said stereotypes of Catholic women as “progressive protesters or demure wives” ignore the depth and reality of their experiences. “We strive to embody the church we believe in and, like all Catholics, have at times struggled to find the most honest ways to live out the fullness of the church’s teachings,” she said.
All the principal articles in the issue were written by women, but Weber said the magazine’s goal was to feature the “voices and diverse perspective of Catholic women” throughout the year and on a wide range of topics.
Robinson said the America issue and her group’s series of hourlong meetings with curial officials deliberately avoided the topic of priestly ordination of women. The church says it has no authority “to confer priestly ordination on women.”
“If you remove it (the issue of women priests), you’re able to talk about other really important matters,” she said.